"Ideology is always most effective when invisible."

- Terry Eagleton

"The best way to preserve one's values is to practice them."

- Terry Eagleton

"If the ideologist will not listen to reason, maybe the pragmatist will."

- Terry Eagleton

"An actor’s a guy who, if you ain’t talking about him, ain’t listening. ”

- Marlon Brando

"Tradition is one part expectation, one part wish fulfillment, and one part convenient denial."

- Shawn Baker

If You Can Keep Your Head

The thing about teaching a subject is, it forces you to understand it, clearly and in detail.

Actually, most of the time it doesn't do anything of the kind. Most teachers have settled on a particular way of explaining a particular theory, which the average student accepts as the complete and only truth - at least until they have to apply it, at which point they find it vague, confused, partly true, only sometimes true...or completely wrong.

Or indeed utterly meaningless - nevermind that the examiner gave them full marks for reciting the approved formulations with the standard examples.

But the student doesn't need the theory for anything more than passing the exam, because they use a different, implicit theory in the real world. And the teacher doesn't need deeper understanding because they're not paid to teach anything that deep. And their boss doesn't need a teacher who rocks the boat by disagreeing with the textbooks.

However, my job is not to teach students to pass exams in English. My job is to teach students English. For use in the real world. Which means I've got to understand what the grammar of English really is, not what the books say. Which means...

...I've pretty much got to write my own textbook. Which I do by taking what I learn about grammar at school, and changing it until:

(1) it fits all the real-world examples I can find, and
(2) I can't invent any plausible counter-examples.

Still with me? Well...nevermind. This is what I learned from books with 'Grammar' in the title, about conditionals in English:

A conditional is an "If". It's an utterance containing two sentences, called the antecedant and the consequent, preceeded by the word "If", and separated by a comma (and sometimes the word "then").

There are four kinds of conditional, labeled "Zero", "First", "Second" and, amazingly, "Third".

In a Zero conditional, the antecedent and consequent are both in the Present-Simple form, for example:

If you heat water to 100 degrees, it boils.
If someone eats a pound of arsenic, they die.
If Brenda eats too many cream cakes, she puts on weight.

These express laws of nature, or consequences that always follow from the antecedents.

In a First conditional, the antecedent is in the Present-simple form, and the consequent in the Future-simple, for example:

If you drive too fast, you will crash.
If your child reads this book, they will do better in school.
If the sun comes out tomorrow, we'll go to the beach.

This is used for consequences that are likely, but not certain.

Third conditionals are a Past-simple antecedent, and a consequent composed of the word "would", plus a present simple. Examples:

If he proposed marriage, I would accept.
If she took singing lessons, her singing would be much better.
If we all worked less and loved more, the world would be nicer.

And finally the third conditional, which is a Past-perfect antecedant, and a "would have" followed by a past participle in the consequent. Examples:

If I had known you were coming, I'd have baked cake.
If we'd known, we'd have acted sooner.
If Mary had listened in school, she wouldn't be working now as a waitress.

This form is for things where the antecedent was once possible, but didn't happen, so the consequent never came to pass.

There are also things known as "mixed conditionals", most commonly the 2/3 conditional, which has the antecedent of the Second and the consequent of the third, for example:

If he proposed marriage, I'd have accepted.

These are really just disguised Third conditionals. They're a regional and class variation that you should be aware of, but not use.

Okay, did any of that stir distant memories of grammar classes? And if it did, what's wrong with it?

Well, here's some conditional sentences:

If she starts singing again, I'm leaving the room.
If the film's already started, I won't watch it.
If I saw them yesterday, I've forgotten.
If I saw them tomorrow, I'd say hello.
If she's been dating him, we should meet him soon.
If the world ended tomorrow, I would spend the day eating ice cream.
If the world ended tomorrow, I'd have wasted my time preparing this lesson.
If the world had been ending yesterday, Rupert Murdoch would have been trying to make a profit out of it.

According to the above model, none of these are possible. So as my old political friends use to say, either the theory's wrong, or reality's wrong, and which do you think is more likely?

So what's my alternative? Well, stay tuned, and as soon as I've got the strength to write it up, I'll post it.

"I can't remember when I first realized that most politicians are even less competent than I am."

- Mattin Robbins

"It must be awful, being a homophobe. Having to spend all that time obsessing about what gay people might be doing with their genitals."

- Charlie Brooker

"Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time."

- Stephen Wright

"The only people obsessed with food are anorexics and the morbidly obese."

- Stephen Fry

"It's the noise that makes me human."

- Assemblage 23

"Watching sport is usually less interesting than watching cardboard exist."

- Charlie Brooker

"Any sentence that starts with 'everybody knows...' has a decent chance of being utter bollocks."

- Dean Burnett

Day of Rest

It's Sunday.

Actually it's Friday, but the Arab weekend is Thursday and Friday so...I got up at midday and had a leasurely breakfast of last night's curry leftovers with pepsi cola.

Other people do work as normal at the weekend - coffee shop servers, manual labourers, delivery van driver, electricians, plumbers etc. Or as we call them, Indians, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis.
Much like Britain really, the ones who actually rest on the days of rest are the ones who wear suits when they're working.

Which suddenly now includes me. I've abruptly become respectable and upper-middle class. Well, lower-uppper-middle class. And therefore obsessed with fine class distinctions.

So how does a respectable, suit-wearing, intellectual working, foreigner live? Well, here's some snaps of my hotel rooms.

The air conditioning unit. Gives you a choice - you can either try to sleep in the hot, muggy air, or do it in the cool air - with the loud rattling and grinding directly over your head.

The view from my window. Would be more representative with cars swerving and screeching to avoid each other.

My bed. Under the air conditioner.

There are three types of electrical socket, and therefore three types of plug. And therefore a lot of converters. Oh, and two distinct systems of voltage - 110v and 220v. Getting the pins to connect is an art and a science, as the size of the pins, the size (and to some extent shape) of the pinholes, and the distances between are somewhat variable. The upshot of which is... what you see is the precise angle of 'hang' and 'tilt' which my TV and receiver box need for reliable power.

The sink. Located next to the bathroom/toilet/laundry room, just inside the front door, and two rooms away from where a sink would be useful, ie. the kitchen. Is this an example of different cultural choices that make perfect sense if you know the history...or an architect whose idea of convenience was "Put everything that needs a water supply in the same place"...?

Bowls and plates. Always useful - mainly for storing three quarters of the absurdly large takeaways you live on, in the fridge.

For making the tea and coffee - served in tiny little cups. This one was in the previous hotel I stayed in...and it was next to the plastic kettle and supersize mug, which actually made the tea. Sometimes the real reason to have a functional item is to have it as decoration.

The, ah, toilet. With hose.

My grandmother had one of these, 35 years ago. Except she had a more advanced model. This is where I clean my clothes. The drier part doesn't so much spin as gently rotate. I have an iron and a second bed, on which clothes dry overnight.

My windows. Located to let light in as opposed to be looked out of, a previous tennent evidently wanted less light in the morning. Which is understandable - when you go out, take sunglasses.

"I instantly distrust any information that everybody knows."

- Dean Burnett

"If sexual fetishes could really be induced by simple conditioning, computer equipment would become strangely arousing."

- Dean Burnett


This post might be a bit icky. Don't read it if you're squeamish.

It's a truism in anthropology that you can tell a lot about a culture from how it deals with human waste.

People breathe, eat, age, die, use language, tell stories, have sex, make babies, form groups, use tools, get ill, make things...and make shit. These are basic facts about what humans are, and any culture - even one that tries to deny or control these things - has to find ways to deal with them.

Death may be taboo for instance, but there need to be mechanisms in place to dispose of corpses.

Slavoj Zizek has a well known monologue about the difference between British, French and German toilets. He says the French have toilets where urine and excrement disappears straight down a dark hole, as though to give the impression that they're instantly obliterated - out of sight, out of mind. The Germans though present your turds to you on a kind of shelf, for you to inspect for signs of infection. And the British, he says, have a compromise that has your waste floating in water.

I've no idea whether this is true, but if you visit Saudi, there's a better than 50% chance that the toilet in your hotel will be...different. And basic looking. Which is to say, a hole in the floor with a cistern attached. You squat over the hole, take aim and...push.

If you want toilet paper, you'll probably have to bring it yourself. Because instead, a small hose squirting warm water is provided for you to clean yourself. And you can give yourself a shallow enema - stick in the nozzle, fill up your rectum, take aim again, and push again. Repeat several times until you're shooting clear water.

I tried it last night. On the one hand, it felt a little gross. On the other...I'm definitely cleaner inside and out than a few wipes with soft paper would give. Oh, and strong leg muscles are an advantage.

As for what this tells us about the Arab attitude to taking a dump...probably a great fear of disease and concomitant devotion to cleanliness. That's not a difficult guess, because they're a very clean people in general - all the clothes I've seen are well laundered and neat.

There's none of the German need to inspect, nor the British habit of faeces that's highly visible until you chose to pull the chain - it goes into a dark water filled hole and becomes almost invisible until you flush it further away.

Plus, this is a culture that still has one foot in the desert. Not surprising, as within living memory it was both feet. How do you expel your wastes traveling in the desert? You set aside an area near your camp for both the liquid and the solid - as opposed to keeping them separate, as you would if you were using people to fertilise their own crops - squat, scrub, and cover with sand to make it disappear.

Perhaps I'm talking a load of, erm, rubbish. It's just a new experience for me, which I'm trying to fit into a larger pattern.

"Everyone is born naked and after that, everything is drag."

- RuPaul


I'm here, I'm reasonably happy, I'm rather busy, and I'm only slightly too hot.

A few first impressions.

* Every significant room has a large, noisy air conditioning unit. I suppose we have a stereotype in mild, damp England that people who live in hot countries don't notice the heat. Well, they do.

* You'll need a hat - and sunglasses.

* Tea really is better without milk.

* Your room will have some some electrical outlets with two pins, and some with three. Some will be 110 volts, and some 220. Make sure you have some sort of insulated tool for tripping the switch on the third pin while plugging a two-pin plug into the other two.

* You can cook and eat in, but eating out is cheap, plentiful, and safe. Your hotel might be a bit grotty - with damp chipped walls highlighted with the occasional cockroach - but the government imposes very strict rules on hygiene in restaurants and takeaway outlets.

* Whatever your phrasebook says, the local dialect will be significantly different. According to my book on Gulf Arabic, my tea without milk or sugar should be something like "Chai, hAlib laa, shikAr laa". Instead, I've just ordered "Shai, hAlib laa, shUker laa".

* If you want to travel more than a hundred meters, you need a car. The towns just aren't built for pedestrians. Assume everyone else on the road is an incompetent maniac. The sound of cars passing, horns blaring and tyres screeching is constant.

* The arabic reputation for hospitality is well justified, in that men will have their male children wait on you.

* Young children drink beer. No alcohol beer.

* Tap water is safe, but bottled water is cheap, colder and tastes a lot better.

* If someone's over thirty, you'll find it's not unusual for them to have fifteen or more siblings. But younger families are a lot smaller.

* Manual labour is done by Indian immigrants. Many of them speak better English, but they can't afford a tutor like me.

* All the children are schooled in rote-learned formal English grammar, and some stock words and phrases. This is odd, as the street signs and shop fronts bilingual in English and Arabic - even in a relative backwater like Arar where I am. English is the language of business, to the extent that in any major company, managerial meetings are conducted in English, even though for everyone involved it's a second language, and they have a first language in common.

* British English is seen as more respectable than American, and probably less imperialist.

I've been here only a week, so...these are just first impressions and I'm some of them aren't accurate. I've got over 30 students waiting for the school to open properly, but my first one-to-one lesson is today.

"Ours was a love story in spite of the marriage."

- Ingrid Caven

"Money poisons science."

- PZ Myers

"We cannot change our face every day."

- Boris Blank

"When a government tells you it's going to make you safe, you're going to lose your freedoms."

- Jesse Ventura

"Moral indignation is the standard strategey for endowing the idiot with dignity."

- Marshall McLuhan

"Whoever controls the language controls the debate."

- Darrel Dow

Off Again

Are you supposed to cry when you leave home?

Are you supposed to cry when you're forty years old and leaving home for the forth or is it the fifth time?

What about when you can't remember the last time you cried, and the worst things in your life are having a beer belly when you don't even drink beer, writer's block and a vague fear that your only real skill is faking other skills.

Nothing dramatic, just a little welling up and a tiny bit of overflow, following an hour of that strange sadness you get when you realise you're about to leave behind something so familiar you've stopped noticing it.

There's a similar sadness that comes from sitting alone in hotel rooms that are interchangable with a million other hotel rooms. But not, I think, from sitting in unfamiliar rooms with old friends.

I don't think sadness is really the opposite of happiness. Happiness comes in moments, minutes, and occasionally hours - I was happy for four or five hours last night. When was the last time you could say that? No, I think sadness is the opposite - or maybe just the absence - of contentment.

Like the song goes, you don't know what you've got till it's gone. Contentment is a vanilla emotion, a feeling that everything's okay, and unremarkable, and unthreatening. Watching someone be happy might make you feel the same way - or annoyed. The same for watching someone cry. But watching someone be content is...boring.

Happiness may be a warm gun, but contentment is a warm bed, a bed you've got used to - even if you know it's actually a lumpy bed with a horrible lime green matress. Yes, it's familiarity again.

Which means, I suppose, that if you've lived with failure all your life, then the prospect of success might provoke a kind of sadness. File that under 'possibly cod psychology' and 'mull over later'.

So, she's leaving home - to quote another Beatles song. And although she's been wanting to leave for years...although she doesn't want to stay, she doesn't quite want to go.

Should I stay or should I....yes, well, anyway.

We're off to see the....


I'm leaving tomorrow.

Yesterday I was quite pleased to find I could travel by train to Heathrow airport, terminal one, for less than GBP30. Today I'm less pleased to find I'm actually leaving from terminal four...and the train costs around GBP60. The 75 mile journey is actually cheaper in a taxi.

Yesterday I thought I'd be spending six hours on a plane. Today I learn I'll have six hours of company on the plane. Quite honestly I'd perfer to plug in to podcasts of industrial techno and ranty film reviews. But part of being nice is being outwardly grateful for unwanted acts of kindness.

Last night I made a mental list of all the things to pack. Today I engaged in three solid hours of advanced three dimensional tesselational - the activity known as 'trying to make everything fit in a suitcase that's a bit too small'.

Last night I had the most impossibly steamy late-night goodbye-sex with an old friend. Today I'm just a bit sore - and could do with more sleep.

But tomorrow...I'm leaving. On a jet plane. To spend probably-a-year but certainly-three-months teaching English to Bedouins.

Accommodation, food, TV and internet laid on. And it's no great trial to be without alcohol, pork products, or to be honest manlove. Saving as much as possible tax-free salary to...well, invest in something sensible later. That's the general vague plan. Inshallah.

"Ghandi was so christian he was Hindu."

- Bill Maher

"It’s one thing to keep quiet. It’s another to pretend you’re someone you’re not.”

- Boy George

"Propaganda is almost never fun, and religious propaganda is always excruciating."

- Shawn Baker

"All stereotypes turn out to be true."

- David Cronenberg

"You couldn't be here without a little incest."

- Bill Bryson

"Where there's a will there's lots of relatives."
- Ravi Zacharias

"Faith is the excuse people give for believing something when they don't have evidence."
- Matt Dillahunty

"You should always celebrate your successes because someone else will celebrate your failures."
- Neil Tennant

"Never trust a traitor. Not even one you create."
- Frank Herbert

Orange Alert

I have a juicer.

You know the kind of thing - a machine which extracts the moisture from friuts and vegetables, giving you a cup of 'healthy, fresh, vitamin-full' water...and a bowl of dry cellulose pulp to put in stews and things.

Well, I have one. And I only mention it because I just discovered it at the back of a cupboard, and I've no idea how or where I got it.

But my parents assure me, they clearly remember me going on a health-kick years ago, and purchasing a juice extracter gizmo.

So, I have just converted a large bag of carrots into a small cup of carrot juice, which is good, because a small cup is all I was able to drink.

The same carrots, baked with herbs and a little butter though, would be a pleasure to eat.

I've a feeling I had the same realisation years ago, just before I packed away and forgot about the juicer.

"They didn't use their brains because they were too busy using their educations."
- James Randi